BALTIMORE — They are the 21 days that should have tried Rams’ souls. Instead, these last 21 days revived Rams’ souls.
Forty players, coaches and football staff—more than any team in the league—tested positive for Covid. Two vital players were sidelined hours before the start of this ramrod schedule: at Arizona, Seattle (delayed two days because of 22 positives that week), at desperate Minnesota, at desperate Baltimore. Because of the Covid spread and the heavy rains in southern California, the team has not had a full, normal practice since early December. With all that, the Rams had to go 4-0 in this stretch to have a realistic chance to pass 10-2 Arizona and be in position to win the division.
Facing the Ravens on Sunday at the big Crabcake, the Rams’ crazy 20-19 win—keyed by superstar acquisitions Von Miller and Odell Beckham Jr.—finished the crazy schedule stretch. The Rams went 4-0. They’ll win the NFC West with either a home win over the Niners this weekend or an Arizona loss to Seattle.
Going 4-0 in that three-week stretch is one of the great accomplishments this season by any NFL team, particularly in the hazy time of the record number of Covid positives. But Christmas Day highlighted a particularly bizarre weekend.
Stalwart left tackle Andrew Whitworth went to bed on Friday night, Christmas Eve, feeling lousy. The team’s head athletic trainer, Reggie Scott, told Whitworth if he didn’t feel good Christmas morning, he should report for 5 a.m. Covid testing at the team facility. Whitworth didn’t sleep much that night, felt feverish, and he knew the team needed him for the Sunday game at Minnesota, and he thought of trying to gut it out. “But I knew the responsible thing with this outbreak running through our team was to test and try to slow it down,” he said.
Whitworth’s first three rapid-test swabs in the 5 a.m. test were positive. He was out for Sunday. His backup, Joe Noteboom, had been out with Covid, but the Rams felt he was trending in a healthy direction, and he reported for the early test. And just as the Rams buses were about to leave for the trip to Minnesota, Noteboom’s PCR test came back positive.
The third option at left tackle, David Edwards, started. But 18 plays into the game, center Brian Allen got hurt, and the Rams shuffled the line, and undrafted rookie Alaric Jackson moved to left tackle for the last 52 snaps against the Vikings.
Jackson, the Rams’ fourth left tackle, gave up zero sacks and one pressure of Matthew Stafford. Rams 30, Vikings 23.
“The blessing in disguise,” Whitworth said, “over the last three weeks is we’ve got guys playing that never played. We’re relying on guys that we’ve never had to rely on before. There’s almost this adversity, this belief system of anybody can get in there and we can be okay. Then you get your guys back and you start getting stronger and there’s just this bond that’s bigger than whether or not one guy can do it. It’s made us have this little resolve that maybe we didn’t have as early in the year. We were a good team, but maybe something was missing. We’re more complete.”
More than that, the Rams are thriving in this ridiculous time. And about 35 of their players, having tested positive in December, now do not have to test through the end of the season, because the NFL gives players who tested positive a 90-day holiday—with a CDC nod of approval—from the testing protocols. More than half of the roster is free of the testing burden, and the Covid burden. Think how handy that will be if the Rams advance in the playoffs. Half the roster can practice and play with an uncluttered mind.
“We are playing football, and playing winning football, through the biggest pandemic of our lifetime,” said Scott, the team’s Infection Control Officer. “Today, these four important players are available. Tomorrow, they’re not. Sometimes I just pinch myself. Really, it’s incredible.”
This really was a compelling game. The Ravens have been ravaged by injury and Covid unlike any team in the league. They’re paying 89 players (about 15 above the league average), with about $77 million in 2021 cap money on IR. You could argue the five most important positions on the run-heavy Ravens are QB, RB, LT, CB and CB. The starters at every one of those spots in August—Lamar Jackson, J.K. Dobbins, Ronnie Stanley, Marlon Humphrey, Marcus Peters—were hurt and not dressed Sunday.
These must-win games are stressful enough for the players. But when I asked Baltimore vet Calais Campbell what this year had been like for him, he said, “Stressful. So stressed. Not just the game itself, but doing everything to be available for the game,” he said. “I can’t afford to test positive. My team needs me. So I try to stay at home as much as possible. Even at home, I’ve been masking up, which is so weird. My son’s looking at me like, ‘Why do you have a mask on?’ But it’s crunch time. You just can’t risk it.”
The Rams took similar precautions on their trip east Saturday. The traveling party was cut down to 75 people on a 239-seat charter—the players, by seniority, get the 30 cushy first-class seats that can lay flat—and eight buses take the 75 people to and from the team hotel and stadium. Nine or 10 people per bus seems weird. “It’s tough to have camaraderie the same as always,” Whitworth said, “because everything is designed to separate us. It’s a little isolating.”
The Rams aren’t perfect. Matthew Stafford turned it over three times for the second straight game Sunday; the Rams won’t continue to survive three stunted drives per game in the playoffs. “I hate going over all of these—I’m tired of doing it,” Stafford said in a moment of introspection after the game. The two picks were surprisingly careless, particularly the pick-six by Chuck Clark to open the scoring. It conjures Detroit Lions thoughts, and those can’t continue as the Rams think about seriously contending for the Super Bowl.
But it seems the more the Rams play together, the more they go into a sort of happy survival mode. Vets like Miller and Beckham both seem so happy to be on a contender, and their play reflects it. The two biggest plays in the game were made by the mid-season imports.
Baltimore led 19-14 with 68 seconds left, with the game on the line. The Rams had fourth-and-five at the Ravens’ 12-yard line. For one of the few times all day, the Baltimore crowd sounded like it had so many times in the Ray Lewis days. As Stafford rolled left, his first option was tight end Tyler Higbee, with Cooper Kupp the second. Both covered. Though Beckham was covered tightly coming across the middle, Stafford thought he had a tight window, and with the rush coming, he was running out of time and options. “The ball needed to get there in a hurry,” Stafford said. “I ripped it pretty good. For him to reach out and snatch it and hold onto it, take a big hit in the back, that was huge.” Beckham stretched for the first down. I bet he made it by eight inches. On the next play, Stafford fit it in to Beckham next to the right pylon. For the first time all day, the Rams led.
The Ravens had one last chance, with a first down at the Baltimore 38-yard line and no timeouts left. Miller had been jonesing for a big play all day against Ravens tackle Patrick Mekari because he respects his game, and because he arrived from Denver in trade to make big plays. This time Miller sped by and enveloped quarterback Tyler Huntley for an eight-yard sack. That was the ballgame. “To have A.D. [Aaron Donald] jump on my back, and to have all the guys go crazy, that’s what you play the game for,” Miller said.
— FanSided (@FanSided) January 2, 2022
You could hear through the door separating the Rams’ locker room and the press-conference room in Baltimore. That was one exultant team late Sunday afternoon. The Rams deserved to let loose. When they took the field in Glendale 21 days earlier, they were 8-4, two games and the tiebreaker behind 10-2 Arizona. And with a week to play, L.A. has a one-game lead, the division title in sight.
Beckham, in particular, reveled in the Ram rally. “It’s tatted on me,” Beckham said. “ ‘The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands at moments of comfort and convenience, but times of challenge and controversy.’ “ The Rams are measuring up well.